Booked Up

The Greatest Cartoon Editor Living Today

Two great books from New Yorker cartoonists Bob Mankoff and Roz Chast offer life lessons with the laughs.

By - Jul 18th, 2014 02:32 pm
Cartoon Bob Mankoff. Image from facebook.

Cartoon Bob Mankoff. Image from facebook.

In the new illustrated memoirs by New Yorker cartoonists, Roz Chast and Bob Mankoff, we see a deeper side of the funny business. Those laughable squiggles that document the daily inanities of life are also used here to illuminate life’s hardest moments and greatest triumphs. You owe it to yourself to get to know two of the brightest artists of our time and learn from their wisdom.

Bob Mankoff is perhaps the greatest cartoon editor living today. You think that’s not a great accomplishment? Wait until you finish his delightful autobiography-with-cartoons, How About Never – Is Never Good For You: My Life In Cartoons. He gives you a grand tour of humor in our country and especially at The New Yorker. There he has nurtured a new generation of humorists while learning from the greats who helped him up the ladder. It is a fascinating journey that comes with many laughs.

Mankoff not only guides us through the development and significance of the magazine cartoon, but gives us a course on writing and drawing them. He even has a chapter on how to win The New Yorker’s Cartoon Caption Contest. He also addresses the famous Seinfeld episode where the characters are trying to figure out what an infamous cartoon means. Any longtime reader will relate to the head-scratching experience of looking at a supposedly hilarious cartoon and not getting it. Mankoff will make you feel better about that, too.

Mankoff’s tributes to the great cartoonists of the past are heartfelt and often poignant. They can never be replaced, Mankoff assures us, but they will be succeeded by new artists more in step with our time. It is fitting that his final section is an introduction to the new kids on the page, many Mankoff’s own discoveries. You will want this book for the cartoons, but I urge you to read it all. Otherwise you’ll miss the underlying pain that makes humor so attractive (and necessary) to our existence.

And speaking of pain… Roz Chast’s new illustrated memoir about her elderly parents and her struggle to help them before their deaths is another must read. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is heartbreaking and funny, simultaneously. Chast’s parents are in their nineties and have had long, pleasant lives, but are on the brink of disaster when she finally intervenes. In one of the memoir’s chilling moments, Chast remembers going to visit them in Brooklyn on 9/9/01. Two days later the World Trade Center is bombed and it becomes clear she has to step in, despite her problematic past relationships with them.

If this all sounds very grim, well, some of it is. But Chast’s inherent ability to see the humor in the most dismal situation makes this charming book not only bearable, but heartwarming. I dare say it is also instructive. This summer, I have already seen this book on the desks of two different friends dealing with the vicissitudes of elderly parents. You will get much out of this humorous look at growing old (and dying), but its real lessons are self-awareness and acceptance of the beauty that life offers each day.

How About Never – Is Never Good For You: My Life In Cartoons. Photo from facebook.

How About Never – Is Never Good For You: My Life In Cartoons. Photo from facebook.

Chast does not turn away from the unpleasantness of aging. In fact, she bravely includes sketches she made of her mother on her deathbed. Chast finds ways to draw us into difficult subjects and then turn them into something we can laugh about. She is self-deprecating and unflinchingly honest and you want to call her up and see how she’s doing by the end of the book.

Humor is a life saver. It allows humans to get through tough times, when thinking up the funny way you’ll tell your tale of woe may be the only upside to it. Humor helps us relate to each other as citizens of the same absurd planet. And ultimately, it is our final companion as we exit the stage. Don’t let the summer pass without reading these two great guides to living a more laughable life!

Upcoming Book Events:

Friday, July 18 (7:00 PM): Andrew Mozina, author of Quality Snacks at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Saturday, July 19 (7:00 PM): Local Book Launch with Michael Zummo, author of D’Mok Revival: Retribution at Boswell Book Company.

Tuesday, July 22 (7:00 PM): June Melby, author of My Family and Other Hazards: A Memoir at Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, July 23 (7:00 PM): James Magruder, author of Let Me See It at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee, 2710 N. Murray Avenue, Milwaukee. (414) 963-9089. Free and welcome to all.  Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, July 23 (7:00 PM): Rebecca Rasmussen, author of Evergreen at Boswell Book Company.

Thursday, July 24 (7:00 PM): Brian Benson, author of Going Somewhere: A Bicycle Journey Across Americaat Boswell Book Company.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at And good reading!

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